Tuesday, February 17, 2004

The Empire Strikes Out
Why even bother? Scrap the 162 game season, the divisional playoffs, the league championships and the World Series - just cut straight to the champagne-soaked trophy presentation, the vile George Steinbrenner accepting what might as well be his permanent property from the frail grasp of equally vile Bud Selig.
The New York Yankees will win the 2004 World Series. This much we know. Unless we don't. And they don't. In which case, well, it'll be time to re-evaluate. Everything.
This much we do know - on paper the New York Yankees have assembled what is quite possibly the most formidable collection of talent in Major League Baseball - if not pro sports - history. The starting line-up will feature eight former all-stars and several future hall of famers (feeling somewhat inadequate yet Enrique Wilson?). Sluggers like Hideki Matsui, who would find himself in the heart of any other team's order, will likely bat somewhere in the neighbourhood of eighth. Theoritically the Yankees one through nine will look something like this (last season's stats included):

CF Kenny Lofton .296/12/46
SS Derek Jeter .324/10/52
3B Alex Rodriguez .298/47/118
RF Gary Sheffield .330/39/132
1B Jason Giambi .250/41/107
DH Bernie Williams .263/15/64
C Jorge Posada .281/30/101
LF Hideki Matsui .287/16/106
2B Enrique Wilson .230/3/15

Oh, and the pitching. Well the starters will be Mike Mussina (17-8, 3.40), Kevin Brown (14-9, 2.39), Jon Lieber (20-6, 3.80 in 2001, his last full season), Javier Vazquez (13-12, 3.24) and, reportedly, Greg Maddux (16-11, 3.96). With the exception of Lieber, all would enter the season as the ace for most any other club in the majors.

The middle relief is outstanding with proven arms like Paul Quantrill, Steve Karsay, and Tom Gordon. And then there's Mariano Rivera, one of the greatest closers in history.

Still, there's every reason to believe the Yankees will fail in their pursuit of a World Series title. And if/when they do, shock of all shocks, Major League Baseball will be all the better for having put up with Steinbrenner's Evil Empire.

Potential Problem #1: Locker Room Cohesion
Good luck Joe Torre. Good luck appeasing the egos. Good luck dividing up the spotlight. How will all of these new faces get along? Who will emerge as leaders in a room full of stars? Who will be the first to complain about not getting enough at bats? Which pitcher will be the first to complain about a lack of innings? Which stars will be willing to take on secondary roles? How will a room full of guys used to be big fishes in smaller ponds adjust to being just another Yankee? It's an internal circus waiting to happen.

Potential Problem #2: Competition
Nevermind that the Yankees have to beat out an entire league's worth of competition to win it all, let's see how they handle the toughest - most improved - division in baseball. The Boston Red Sox, let's not forget, have loaded up on talent as well. The Orioles and Blue Jays, each in their own way, have done the same. The Yankees will not be afforded the luxury of cruising to a division title. There will be no chance to relax in September with a big lead over second place. And let's not forget the at least potentially formidable teams in Oakland, Kansas City and Chicago. Night in and night out there will be challenging opponents to face. And that is likely to take a toll.

Potential Problem #3: Injuries.
This is an old team - the majority of the team's stars over 30 years of age and many of them prone to injury. The pitching staff is of most concern. Jon Lieber hasn't thrown a pitch in a year and a half. Kevin Brown's stay in Los Angeles was plagued by nagging injuries. Greg Maddux is on the downside of his career. And even Mariano Rivera has begun to show a degree of frailty. A couple arms go down and suddenly this is a very different team.

Potential Problem #4: Pressure and Expectation.
New York has crushed far greater men than Gary Sheffield. And this year the crush of expectation and scrutiny will be unlike any ever seen before. As Tom Kurkjian at ESPN.com noted, New York sports writers might as well kiss their familiies goodbye for the next year. This squad will be a travelling media frenzy of Lewinsky proportions (pun sort of intended). The smallest dysfunction will be front page news. The slightest slump magnified ten fold. If this team doesn't dominte from day one it will be villified and deconstructed by hometown scribes fevered with expectation and voraciously attacked by out of town reporters eager to see them fail.

Potential Problem #5: Enrique Wilson.
Alright. Not really a problem, in the classic sense. But in the bizarro world of Major League Baseball circa February 2004, some are already questioning whether he should be replaced in light of the team's other upgrades - as if he has become less of a player as his teammates became greater. If they keep him, he will become a convenient target should he be called upon in anything approximating a clutch situation.

If you believe in any of the above, as I do, you have every reason to believe the Yankees are doomed to fail (as I do). When (screw "if" - let's be bold) they do, it will surely be time to rejoice. For not only will the Yankees have by then given us a series of fringe benefits to their success, but, in failure, they will have ushered in a new era in baseball.

Fringe Benefit #1: The Luxury Tax.
Due to the luxury tax, every dollar Steinbrenner spends from here on in, means more money for small market clubs. Will this money turn the San Diego Padres into a dynasty over night? No. But, if spent wisely (see the Toronto Blue Jays use of a mere $50 million this year), it can surely be the start of something good. If nothing else it will help cover some of the crippling losses. In either case, it's money. Something every team (other than the Yankees and Red Sox) could use more of.

Fringe Benefit #2: United in hate.
Everywhere today, Brewers fans, Orioles fans, Tiger fans, and all the rest are calling up their Boston-faithful friends and exclaming that finally - finally - they understand. Not that the Yankees were particularly popular pre-ARod, but now all fans have reason to hate the Imperialist Yankees. The Yankees are the United States. The rest of the majors is the rest of the world (if you buy the talk of rampant Anti-Americanism). Major League Baseball, now more than ever, has a villain. A loathsome, greedy beast to be boo'd lustily. Now, more than ever, teams can stand by their underdog heroes, forever hopeful of a triumph over the big, bad giant to the north (or, in the case of Toronto and Montreal, south).

Fringe Benefit #3: Hate, but awe.
We hate them. But we'll still likely buy a couple tickets to check them out when they're in town. Even if we know our team is bound to get clobbered, the chance to see so many stars in one place will likely be too much to pass up. If only to try out our new Jeter jeers, we will be there. The Yankees will become a sort of Evil Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. Not so much in town to spread joy and good humour, but to incite hatred and violence. Not unlike the Republican Party. All the same, they'll likely sell out every ballpark they visit.

And now... the big ultimate, life-altering benefit to the Yankees and their inevitable demise:

It will be the final strike against the theory that you can buy a championship.

You would have thought that the Florida Marlins would have proved this to George last year. Heck, you'd figure George could just look cross town to the NHL's New York Rangers. But, if George has to learn the hard way, so be it.

When the Yankees fall short of a World Series title it will prove once and for all that money can't buy championships. Money certainly doesn't hurt. But it guarantees nothing.

And failure on a grand scale will prove to owners - or at least those who haven't already figured it out - that spending within your limits, making wise acquisitions, planning for the future, and meticulous building are the keys to success. Smart management breeds success. Success breeds profits. Profits breed spending. But only when coupled with the smart management that started it all, does spending breed championships.

More teams will follow the lead of Toronto and Oakland (note that Los Angeles has already moved to install another Beane disciple as general manager). Fiscal restraint and long-term vision - because they make both business and baseball sense - will seem all the more appealing. Fewer owners will be willing to spend tens of millions of dollars every four summers in hopes of loading up for one big run, only to suffer repeated years of mediocrity, smaller crowds, lower revenues, etc...

Which isn't to say that George Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman aren't smart. They're brilliant actually. Especially George. All major market advantages aside, he has shown remarkable smarts, courage and ambition in building such an expansive empire. And Brian Cashman proves that a smart baseball man is needed to ensure money is spent wisely (see the Baltimore Orioles' track record with free agents). But they've gotten greedy. Their off-season is one of hubris. Each successive acquistion only increasing their already insatiable appetite for impact superstars. But their sight has exceeded their reach. Or words to that effect. They have not so much built a team, as purchased a number of expensive parts with little to no regard to how they'll all work together.

They will fail. They MUST fail. And baseball will be all the better for them having tried.

Or so we hope. And, in February, that's all anbody's got.


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